Climate Change: An Evolving Paradigm for Sustainable Infrastructure | Black & Veatch
2024 Water Report

Climate Change

Climate Change: An Evolving Paradigm for Sustainable Infrastructure

As climate change brings profound change to the world’s water cycle, U.S. water utilities are being compelled to rapidly adapt to the ever-evolving conditions to better prepare for threats and hazards and withstand and rapidly recover from adverse climatic events. 

The need for responsiveness, planning and investment has been promoted for decades, notably since the U.S. Global Change Research Program was established by Congress in 1990 to coordinate federal research and investment to advance understanding of climate change. In 2023, it published its fifth National Climate Assessment, providing an accounting of climate change’s impact on Earth’s systems and processes — its interconnected land, water and atmosphere. Backed by scientific observation, that assessment details extreme variability in climate-related events, notably the rise in their severity, extent and/or frequency. 

Clearly, it’s a complex issue with no simple solutions, no silver bullet. But Black & Veatch’s 2024 Water Report, based on expert analyses of a survey of roughly 630 U.S. water sector stakeholders, brings it all into focus. 

The key: Planning, preparedness and a focus on adaptation enables effective response and prevents costly and less effective reactive measures. 

Extreme Variability

If necessity is the mother of invention, as the age-old proverb suggests, then performance is the mother of resilience for those in the water industry. 

Consider this: Because of the dynamic relationship between people and nature, climate variability is putting lives and livelihoods at grave risk. Inequities are worsening within underserved and marginalized communities. Networks of industry, infrastructure, commodities, goods and services are increasingly vulnerable. And the global financial toll from disasters driven by climate change is astounding; A study published in October 2023 by the journal Nature Communications estimated that such events between 2000 and 2010 have caused damages equivalent to $391 million a day, with researchers determining that droughts and heat waves contributed to about $143 billion of damage annually. 

To put a finer point on it, the National Centers for Environmental Information — an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — has reported that the United States experienced a billion-dollar disaster, adjusted for inflation, on average every 82 days in the 1980s; now, there is one on average every 18 days. 

Shifting weather patterns, devastating storms and warming average temperatures bring significant threat and damage to the nation’s water resources and infrastructure. Altogether, it is compounding the challenge of water sustainability and resilience. 

Impacts and Concerns

There was not a significant change in feedback from last year in response to Black & Veatch’s survey question regarding respondents’ concerns about the impacts of climate change. Changing precipitation patterns resulting in flooding and drought is of greatest concern to respondents, with rising temperatures, wildfires and sea level rise lower on the list. When it comes to their enterprise’s ability to handle such events, respondents pointed to aging infrastructure — perennially, the sector’s top concern — and the cost of disruptive events as their primary worries. However, and perhaps optimistically, respondents who cited the cost of disruptive events as a top concern fell by 10 percent from 2023; This could be due to the work utilities have done to harden their facilities, with another possible explanation being the access to unprecedented federal funding (Figure 17). 

2024 Water Report climate change figure 17 image

In any case, the most-cited concerns from Black & Veatch’s survey align with the most significant climate-change impacts cited in the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s Fifth National Climate Assessment — water scarcity, damage to critical infrastructure, harm to human well-being and disruption to business. 

Hazard Mitigation Planning

The existential threat to their year-round, 24/7 service has spurred utilities to understand and mitigate the climate-related shifts to their water resources and risks to their infrastructure and operations. As such, they are embracing planning for climate change adaptation and community, infrastructure and ecosystem resilience. Eighty-five percent of respondents report having a disaster response plan, 65 percent have a disaster recovery roadmap or framework, and nine in 10 respondents have, are working on or would like to have a resilience and adaptation plan (Figure 18). 

2024 Water Report climate change figure 18 image

Given ample evidence that severe weather events are becoming more unpredictable and costly, a hazard-mitigation plan (HMP) developed under Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements can be well worth the effort. The National Institute of Building Sciences has documented that mitigation can reduce future disaster costs up to $13 for every $1 invested. 

An HMP identifies natural risks and vulnerabilities in a utility’s planning area and provides short and long-term strategies for reducing loss of life, destruction of property, and interruption of services from the hazards. HMPs help utilities break the cycle of disaster damage and reconstruction. They create eligibility for FEMA mitigation grant funding opportunities such as the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program, which has awarded more than $1 billion for water infrastructure projects nationwide. 

HMPs also can be integrated with capital improvement programs, climate action and adaptation plans, water loss management analysis, water resource management plans, America’s Water Infrastructure Act (AWIA) risk and resilience assessment and risk mitigation plans, and many others. Such progressive planning promotes holistic management of water resources and infrastructure, increasing efficiency and funding eligibility while promoting resilience. 

In last year’s Black & Veatch survey, four in 10 respondents said they were part of their local FEMA HMP; that number is trending up, reaching 53 percent now, indicating the sector is managing climate change impacts more proactively. However, 11 percent still say they are not part of a HMP and more than one-third (36 percent) remain unsure — all missing a potentially significant opportunity. 

Nature-based Solutions

Nature-based solutions are a “One Water” approach that survey respondents also are deploying to manage impacts from climate change. Such solutions use, manage, protect and restore natural features and processes to promote adaptation and resilience; and these solutions involve managing, protecting, and restoring natural features and processes, and can be integrated into hazard mitigation and asset management frameworks. 

Top priorities cited by respondents as drivers of integration of these solutions include groundwater recharge, reuse and innovative wastewater treatment. That nearly mirrors last year’s responses with a significant exception: Respondents identified access to funding as a major factor in 2024, as important as any other and much higher than in 2023. (Figure 19). 

2024 Water Report climate change figure 19 image

The reason begins with the benefits of integrating nature-based solutions, which help utilities restore the integrity of natural systems, comply with regulatory requirements, mitigate climate risk and deliver community-centered amenities — all potentially at a lower cost than standalone traditional infrastructure. This has opened the door to a myriad of funding opportunities. Hundreds of federal and state grants, loans, rebates, tax credits and other programs are designed for or can be used to fund nature-based solutions projects. An estimated 70 to 80 programs were created, enhanced, or received funding for nature-based solutions under the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) alone. 

Climate Analytics

In a somewhat telling finding from this year’s survey, just 11 percent said they use a climate analytics platform for future predictions, while those who said they do not total 61 percent. One in four respondents didn’t know. 

Sure, utilities don’t face regulatory compliance requirements to compel them to examine climate analytics, and some might not see the value or may view the technology as expensive. But it’s an opportunity the water sector might be overlooking. 

Planning and design criteria depend heavily on historical data, which does not help with the extreme climate variability the world is experiencing. Modeling — coupled with analytics — is a proven tool for minimizing future damage and outages from weather-related disasters. For example, Black & Veatch helped a client develop a projected storm reserve basis for the next 20 years, including inflation, by matching storm events and damage data against storm costs suffered by the client. Black & Veatch effectively developed a new way to calculate risk based on specific storm types, providing analysis that is now a key piece of the client’s climate change risk management profile. 

Make no mistake, climate change impacts are expected to continue, perhaps change, become more frequent and expensive, and so on. But climate change’s fallout already is evident, pressing the urgency to do something to analyze the impacts and adapt to them now, knowing it’ll likely be more costly and punishing to those who take their chances by waiting. 

Case Study

Flood mitigation became a top public works priority for Apache Junction, Arizona, as traditional storms in the region became more severe and frequent with climate change, bringing cascades of water, sediment and debris out of the Superstition Mountains to the growing city east of metropolitan Phoenix. Needing to protect lives and property, Apache Junction is building a new multi-use detention facility that features nature-based solutions. 

Designed by the team of Black & Veatch and Dibble with strong community engagement, the facility will extend more than 12,000 feet along Weekes Wash, a dry watercourse that quickly fills when heavy storms hit. A 34-foot-high earthen embankment will impound floodwater, providing storage for 100-year storm events and an alternative supply to be used to augment groundwater resources via permitted rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge. Yet the design allows flows from smaller storms to pass through, to preserve the wash’s hydrological and ecological functions. The project also includes recreational and public amenities. 

With its nature-based features and integrated water resources management approach, the project qualified for funding from FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program. Black & Veatch helped Apache Junction realize the project by proactively securing approximately half the funding for the $90 million legacy project via $44 million in competitive grants, the most that FEMA has ever awarded in Arizona. 

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